The Fantastic Four are going to have their day now that Disney has acquired 20th Century Fox. While this is a deal that is terrible for cinema and even worse for news, it is certainly good for superhero fans. If anyone can capture the weirdness of wonder of the title that launched an entire era of comics, it’s Marvel Studios. It just might require a different approach than Hollywood is generally willing to take with superhero movies as we know them. For the sake of this article, please spare me the “we already had two great Fantastic Four movies with The Incredibles” argument, because we all know that.
The failure of Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four movie with critics, fans, and at the box office was a damning indicator of just how far the Fantastic Four brand has fallen since its comic book heyday of the 1960s and ’70s. But maybe the issue is simply that the Fantastic Four don’t lend themselves quite as easily to familiar superhero movie tropes as some of their more successful counterparts. The 2015 movie was the third big screen incarnation of the Fantastic Four, and the fourth movie overall. The first was the Roger Corman production, made for approximately one million dollars only so that a film studio could keep the rights out of the hands of Marvel long enough to make a more suitable movie. That movie was both faithful to the source material and sincere in its tone, but it may or may not have ever actually been intended for release.
In the mid-2000s, we were given two Fantastic Four movies from 20th Century Fox and director Tim Story. Fantastic Four and its sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer were similarly faithful in look and tone to the classic Marvel comic book. They were also dull, by-the-numbers blockbuster fare with a cast that (the fairly inspired choice of Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm aside) failed to capture the vitality or chemistry of the FF’s traditional family dynamic. Worse, like the 2015 movie, they utterly wasted one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, Dr. Doom. Considering that a post-Thanos MCU has a serious villain problem of its own, getting Doctor Doom right should be a major priority for Marvel Studios going forward.
The Tim Story films weren’t particularly interested in reinventing the wheel, and their deviations from the letter of FF mythology were no greater than those that made tried-and-true box office titans like Batman or Spider-Man more suitable for the big screen. Unlike a proven ticket and merchandise mover like Spider-Man, there’s an increasingly vocal sentiment that the Fantastic Four are inherently old fashioned and faintly ridiculous, and that modern audiences simply don’t have a place for them in their already superhero saturated hearts. On the surface, when your “coolest” member is a guy who can burst into flame, that kind of pales in comparison to some of the sexier heroes out there. The relatively grounded approach to Trank’s Fantastic Four may have been an attempt to combat this, and it certainly calls back to what Bryan Singer did in the first X-Men film, which moved along at a similarly glacial pace during its first act and did away with the characters’ more colorful garb.
But it wasn’t that grounded approach that sunk the new FF franchise. The Tim Story movies, as faithful as they were to the comic book aesthetic, both made more than twice their budget back at the worldwide box office, but nobody, not even the most fervent superhero movie apologist, was ever particularly enthused about them. They earned middling reviews and tepid fan reaction, and there was never any sense of urgency to get Fantastic Four 3 into production.
While the Marvel Studios house style that blends witty banter, cosmic adventure, and family-friendly bloodless violence is perfectly suited (even inspired by) the Fantastic Four, they’ve had enough on their plate over the last few years without trying to cram the X-Men or Fantastic Four onto their release schedules. But the release of Avengers: Endgame not only marks the end of the latest “phase” of Marvel movies, it also ushers in an era where the stories of heavy hitters like Captain America and Iron Man have run their course while audiences have already thrilled to multiple Avengers movies. What was once impossible is suddenly commonplace, and this is where the Fantastic Four will have a chance to distinguish themselves.
The next Fantastic Four movie must genuinely offer audiences something different. And “different” is exactly what made The Fantastic Four “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were at the controls for over 100 issues. Nobody needs another origin story (for this or any other franchise), and the elemental iconography of the Fantastic Four doesn’t really need much more explanation than “a guy who can stretch, a woman who can turn invisible and project force fields, a human torch, and a tragic but powerful rock monster.” Superheroes are now such a part of the cinematic vocabulary that spending thirty minutes explaining the hows and whys of superpowers is as wasteful as explaining how the hero of a Western learned to shoot and ride a horse.
So while every Fantastic Four movie has nailed the broad strokes, what is always lacking is the real soul of these characters and their world: one full of impossible adventure, surprises, and technology. The Four have never been known for solving their problems by hitting them, so you can eliminate the idea of a noisy, city-destroying climax. The FF are about big, cosmic, timey-wimey ideas, and the smart, quirky, friends and family who have to work through it all together. Need an example of how audiences might relate to that brand of non-traditional superheroics? Doctor Who is adored by loyal fans and it’s a perfect example of how to depict awkward smart people finding (mostly) non-violent solutions to reality-warping problems.
The Fantastic Four comics of the Lee/Kirby team at their peak in 1966 to 1968 contain page after page of budget busting visuals and concepts that would send any Hollywood bean-counter to the poorhouse. Instead, we’ve been stuck with dull backlot slugfests (FF 2005), a purple cloud instead of Galactus (Rise of the Silver Surfer), and a hastily devised green screen nightmare (FF 2015). I’m giving the 1994 film a pass because that movie is lucky it had craft services, let alone special effects.
It’s difficult to imagine a potential movie franchise more antithetical to current superhero movie trends than the Fantastic Four. The team is, quite literally, a family. Their adventures are almost uniformly intergalactic or interdimensional in nature. Half of the members have power sets that don’t lend themselves to the brute force that has become shorthand for most superheroing. Done right, the Fantastic Four can and should be the property that Kevin Feige and Disney executives look to when they fear audiences are tiring of superhero movies. The FF is another Guardians of the Galaxy in waiting, and unlike those blockbusters, it comes with considerably more brand recognition out of the gate.
It’s not rocket science or interdimensional travel. Someone will figure it out. See you at the Baxter Building in MCU Phase Four.